Preserving Tradition: The Remarkable Journey of Irish American Halls in San Francisco

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a resolute and passionate group of Irish individuals within our city embarked on an ambitious mission – the establishment of an Irish American hall in the Sunset district. While the dream of having their own Irish Center was eventually realized in March of 1975 it wasn’t the first time the Irish had undertaken such a project. This endeavor was not the first of its kind in San Francisco, as it followed in the footsteps of several earlier Irish gathering places that had made indelible marks on the city’s history. 

Irish American Halls
As far back as 1860, the Irish American Benevolent Society had erected the Irish American Hall, a place dedicated to the welfare of its members and the dignified burial of those who could not afford it. The imposing structure once stood at the corner of Howard Court, though it no longer graces our city’s map. Nevertheless, it remains a testament to the determination and hard work of the early Irish immigrants. Over the years, other iconic and lively Irish gathering spots emerged, including Hibernia Hall at 120 Ninth Street, and later at 16th and Valencia, as well as the Knights of the Red Branch (KRB) at 1133 Mission Street.

Irish American Benevolent Hall, 818 Howard Court circa 1869

Memories of the Homeland: Nurturing a Cultural Bond
These visionary individuals drew inspiration from cherished memories of dancing in Irish halls and the bonds formed through socializing in Ireland. Their aim was to recreate a slice of Ireland in San Francisco, offering a taste of home in a foreign land. For any immigrant who undertook the journey from Ireland to America, thoughts of their homeland often occupied their daily musings. The profound connection they felt could be attributed to nostalgia, a yearning for family left behind, or a deeply rooted sense of heritage. In today’s interconnected world, true disconnection is a rarity, yet the yearning for one’s origins remains an enduring and powerful sentiment.

Movement Westward: Shaping the Future
As the popularity of the KRB, affectionately referred to as the Ballroom of Romance, soared to its zenith, it became apparent that the venue could no longer adequately accommodate the burgeoning Irish community in the city. Furthermore, its limitations as a single-purpose facility no longer aligned with the diverse needs and desires of the membership. This challenge coincided with a noticeable shift in the geographic center of the local Irish population, which was steadily moving westward, away from the downtown areas.

Dreams into Reality: Then and Now
Back in the early 1970s, when news of the ambitious project at the corner of 45th and Wawona, where the current United Irish Cultural Center stands, first reached the ears of the community, skepticism abounded. Many believed it would never come to fruition. However, the community and the building committee remained resolute in their determination.
To support this visionary project, the building committee offered memberships, and as word spread about their serious intentions, people rallied to their cause. Between 1972 and 1973, the membership roster swelled from 400 to 800 individuals. Although the committee had set an ambitious goal of 1000 members for the groundbreaking day, they broke ground on November 11th, 1973, and never looked back. Today, our community boasts over 1200 active members dedicated to the Center’s support. As we approach the final stages of the planning phase for the new building, there’s a growing excitement about its redevelopment. 

As we approach the final stages of the planning phase for the new building, there is a palpable excitement about its redevelopment. Now, we are calling on individuals to step forward and contribute in any way they can. 

Liam, how can you help? This is a question I’m frequently asked, and my response is straightforward. Are you a member? If not, consider joining as one. If you are already a member, fantastic! Let’s discuss how you can take your support to the next level. We often use the words “Time, Talent, and Treasure” to describe the ways people can assist us. All three are invaluable, especially now as we prepare to launch the capital campaign needed to fund the Irish Center’s reconstruction.

Join our Team! 
Join us in what can only be described as a once-in-a-generation movement to revitalize the Irish Center. The time is now. Sign up as a new member, renew a lapsed membership, or engage with the building committee or fundraising team. It’s been an incredible journey so far, and your help will propel us to the next level. Together, we are preserving tradition and ensuring that the Irish spirit continues to thrive in San Francisco for generations to come.

New Board Member
Welcome to Paige O’Keeffe who has joined the board, with a wealth of experience in the non-profit and private enterprise sphere focusing on marketing, communications, and team building. Paige is married to a Corkman Dennis O’Keeffe and they reside in Sonoma, CA.

Emigrant Support Program
We had some good news with our grant applications to the Irish government for funding this year. We secured a total of $137,000 to be allocated towards a Developmental Officer, Cultural Programming and the Keepers of the Steps exhibition for the 2023-2024 fiscal year. This financial support will allow us to continue to build the 2025 Project team, and to expand and maintain our cultural programming here at the Center.

Emerald Society Dance
The Emerald Society Annual Dinner Dance is at the Center on Saturday October 21st. Award winners this year include: Officer of the Year, Sean Cody, Mission Station;Citizen of the Year, Kathy Grogan; and Lifetime Achievement award to Inspector John Keane, SFPD, SVU. Contact John Hallisy for tickets 415-618-9388.

Irish Movies Showcase
The Irish Film Institute has gifted two Irish movies to the Irish Center to broadcast on Thursday October 12th starting at 7pm. We will show “The Quiet Girl” and the Oscar winning “An Irish Goodbye”. You must register to attend on the Irish Centers website. 

Children’s Book Club
On Saturday morning October 14th the Library is open from 10.15 am to 10.45 am for Children’s Storytime with Ms. Nancy.

Liam Reidy, President